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Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko takes the oath of office during his inauguration ceremony at the Palace of the Independence, in Minsk, on Sept. 23, 2020.Andrei Stasevich/The Associated Press

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko inaugurated himself for a sixth term Wednesday in a surprise ceremony held amid weeks of mass protests by those who believe he lost the Aug. 9 presidential election.

The inauguration, carried out shortly after soldiers formed a protective ring around the presidential compound in Minsk, was immediately denounced as a farce by opposition leaders, who again called on Mr. Lukashenko to step down.

Fresh protests erupted Wednesday evening, with thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators marching through the streets of Minsk and other cities – including Vitebsk, Mogilev and Brest – as they have every day since the election. The regime again responded with force, using water cannons and batons to beat back the crowds.

Mr. Lukashenko claims to have won more than 80 per cent of the vote, but most Belarussians believe the election was won by opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

In a video statement from the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, where she is currently in exile, Ms. Tikhanovksaya called the inauguration “a farce” – an attempt by Mr. Lukashenko to “proclaim himself legitimate.”

She repeated her claim to have won the election. “I, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, am the only leader that has been elected by the Belarussian people. And our goal right now is to build the new Belarus together.”

Mr. Lukashenko’s defiant move will increase pressure on Western policy makers to formulate a more coherent response to the events in Belarus. Several prominent members of the opposition told The Globe and Mail that Canada should impose tough new sanctions targeting Mr. Lukashenko and his inner circle.

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said Wednesday that Canada “deplores” Mr. Lukashenko’s unannounced inauguration after last month’s “fraudulent” election. In a tweet, Mr. Champagne said Mr. Lukashenko “lacks the legitimacy as a democratically elected leader.”

“Canada calls for a free and fair election for the people of Belarus. We are coordinating with the international partners for an appropriate response.”

Mr. Champagne also pledged $600,000 to support civil society groups.

Pavel Latushko, a former cabinet minister who has joined the opposition, said the inauguration ceremony – which the official Belta news service said was attended by “several hundred people” – “looked more like a meeting of thieves.” He called on foreign governments to ignore it.

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Pavel Latushko, a former member of Alexander Lukashenko's cabinet who defected to join the opposition.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

“As of today, [Mr. Lukashenko] is no longer the president of the Republic of Belarus. He is just the head of OMON [the riot police],” Mr. Latushko said in Warsaw, where he fled last month after being threatened with arrest. “For us, citizens of Belarus, for the world community, he is now nobody.”

Mr. Latushko praised Canada’s call, along with 16 other members of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, for the creation of a mission of experts to investigate the alleged election fraud, as well as the regime’s use of violence against protesters. But he said Ottawa should do more.

“We are waiting for a very strong and very honest position of Canada towards the process in Belarus,” said Mr. Latushko, who is a member of a seven-person co-ordination council appointed by Ms. Tikhanovskaya to oversee what the opposition hopes will be a peaceful transfer of power.

One step Canada could take, Mr. Latushko said, would be to declare that it will no longer recognize Mr. Lukashenko as president after Nov. 5, the last day of his current five-year term.

The opposition has also called for Canada and other Western governments to adopt economic sanctions and travel bans targeting Mr. Lukashenko and his cronies.

The European Union has drawn up a list of 40 individuals accused of involvement in the election fraud and subsequent crackdown. However, a veto by Cyprus – an EU member with close economic ties to Russia – makes it unlikely EU-wide sanctions will come to pass.

Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have gone ahead with their own sanctions against Mr. Lukashenko and 29 other Belarussian officials, and Poland is believed to be close to doing the same. Belarussian opposition leaders say that, with the EU’s position tangled, they’re looking to Canada, the U.S. and Britain to move ahead with sanctions.

Canada imposed sanctions on Belarus in 2006 – barring all but humanitarian exports to the country – but removed the measures in 2016 as part of an effort to engage the Lukashenko regime. A news release at the time said the Trudeau government believed Belarus had made “progress in key areas,” including a decrease in “the levels of violence and intimidation” used by the regime.

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Andrei Sannikov, who ran for President against Alexander Lukashenko in 2010 and was jailed on election day.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

Andrei Sannikov, an opposition politician who ran for president against Mr. Lukashenko in 2010 – another election marred by allegations of fraud – said lowering the sanctions was a tactical error.

“It is time to recognize that it was a mistake and for Canada to introduce unilateral sanctions,” Mr. Sannikov said in an interview in Warsaw, where he has been based since being arrested after the 2010 election. “Canada can do much more than it is doing today.”

Mr. Champagne’s office said last week that Canada is working with its allies and “considering all options when it comes to ensuring human rights are upheld” in Belarus but did not specifically mention sanctions. Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong said Canada should reinstate the sanctions it lifted in 2016 and use a law known as the Magnitsky Act to go further and target specific members of Mr. Lukashenko’s regime.

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